Join Date: Jun 2012
Two chapters posted here a decade back:
Self Improvement: Chapters 1-2
by Rudolf Allers
9 March 2004
[Preface and opening chapters of Self Improvement, by Rudolf Allers, M.D., Ph.D., former professor of psychology at Catholic University of America. Roman Catholic Books, Fort Collins, Colorado, 1939.]
PREFACE This book deals with the difficulties man encounters in life insofar as these difficulties have their origin in human personality; it aims at showing that much more of the difficulties and troubles man has to wrestle with spring from his own personality, or even are of his own doing, than is generally believed. It deals with the many reasons why a man may feel dissatisfied with himself and may desire to become different. And it endeavors to show that this desire is not at all hopeless, that man has many more chances of changing and of making himself change than common opinion will concede.
The arguments of the following pages are drawn from experience. They are not mere ideas derived from some philosophical or speculative idea on human personality. But they are, nevertheless, based on a definite philosophy. No treatise on human nature, or any side of it, can indeed dispense with such a philosophical basis, nor does it ever, though some authors may not be aware of their starting from a definite and general philosophy. Many of the differences of opinion which give rise to such a lot of controversies in psychology and pedagogy -- not to mention other fields of research -- arise not because one scholar has got hold of facts the other ignores, but from their starting from opposite platforms, that is from their adhering to opposite philosophies.
This book is based on Christian philosophy and Christian morals. They supply the general trend of the reasonings, but they are not the point from which these reasonings start. All that is explained in the following chapters is based on experience. It is facts and not speculation. And these facts may, in a way, contribute to prove the general and philosophical point of view to be true and, therefore, to be the one which will be most helpful in arranging our life.
Its being based on Christian philosophy does not make this book a treatise on religion, nor even a religious book in the true sense of the word. Though the introduction of certain notions belonging to theology -- e.g., of grace or Providence of sin -- cannot be avoided altogether, this book is one of psychology and written from the point of view peculiar to the psychologist. Nor is it philosophical, though it is based on a definite philosophy and, sometimes, makes appeal to philosophical ideas. This book is, in the main, one of practice. Its intention is to make clear things every man may understand and to give advice every man may follow and to show ways accessible to everyone. One need not study philosophy to become better.
Nor does its being based on Christian morals make this book one on morality. It is argued indeed that the way prescribed by morals is not only the best, but also the surest, if we want to attain satisfaction and a life as free from friction as is allowed to man. This does not mean, however, that this book is on morals. So far as the statements of morals come in, they do so because they have been found by experience to be useful rules of human behavior.
A reader desiring to know more of the principles of the philosophy of human nature will be disappointed. The book is not on them nor on the theory of psychology. It is the outcome of many years of observation, of practice, and of intercourse with many people. It does not aspire at being more than a summary of these experiences. In summarizing these experiences many details had to be left out; a complete treatise on the difficulties of human life and of the mistakes made by man and on the reasons why these mistakes are made would have to be much larger -- if such a task can be done at all. The author is fully conscious of the incompleteness of his arguments. But he is also convinced of the fact that the mistakes, or faults, or bad habits, or troubles occurring in every man's life are, all of them, essentially of the same nature, and that it is, therefore, sufficient to describe and to analyze some few to help in understanding them all.
Many a reader will fell, when perusing these pages, that he has been told nothing he did not know already. And he will be quite right. All the things detailed in this book are, more or less, known to everyone; but they are known in a dim and veiled manner. They have to be drawn into the clear light of consciousness for the sake of becoming helpful. The writer of these pages hopes not for more than for just this: that his words will be found to state but things known; if they are known to everyone, they will be true and they will tell but some essentials of human nature. Truths have to be told and considered, and not only to be felt. As long as these truths are not made fully conscious, as long as they are not made the very rules guiding our life, they are rather useless. This book desires nothing more than to show to everyone that he knows already what is amiss with him and that he knows the ways how to improve. By putting these things openly before the eyes of its readers, this book hopes to enable them to use what they know and to do what they can.
We may know perfectly what things are contained in a dark room, and we may know also how to handle those things. But we do not see them really, nor are we able to use them until the shutters are opened and the light of the day is flooding in. To open the windows of the human soul is all this book can hope to achieve.
Catholic University of America
ON THE NEED AND THE CHANCES OF IMPROVEMENT
1. Need We Change?
Need we change at all? Is it really necessary to become different or better? May we not go on being what we are and behaving as we do? We are not perfect, we are surely no saints. But as for being a saint, who can be expected to be one? They are exceptions -- wonderful, admirable exceptions; but we, you and you and I, we were not born to be exceptions, and so, why worry about not being perfect? Surely our neighbors have many reasons, good ones and bad ones, for finding fault with us, and we are quite right in thinking in the same way of them. What they think of us we do not know exactly; but we can imagine it pretty well. Not being perfect, we cannot avoid giving offence sometimes and to some people. But we manage to get along with them quite nicely, at least as a rule, and there is no plausible reason why we should bother about changing or becoming better.
There are, however, some rather disturbing facts. One day a friend, or maybe someone we are but slightly acquainted with, will remark on our behaving wrongly on a certain occasion; or he will, because he is merely cross or because some words of ours have made him angry, suddenly reveal to us that he thoroughly disapproves of certain features of our character. We may get angry too, and oftener than not such a scene means the end of a friendship or, at least, a definite estrangement. We feel sure that he is, of course, wrong; his words have evidently been dictated by bad temper; he never really understood us; we are quite disappointed at his behaving in such a manner; we are sorry to lose him, but after all, it is perhaps better to get rid of him, since he proved to be so little capable of understanding us. So we think, and we try to push back the things he said into some remote corner of our mind; but they will go on rankling, and they will, in some quiet hour, turn up again and give rise to an uneasy feeling as to whether he has not been right after all.
We may also become, without such an impulse from without, suddenly conscious of something being amiss with us. The accustomed feeling of being all right according to generally accepted standards, gives way to a definitely uncomfortable state of mind, a state of dismay, of disapproval, of -- well, of bad conscience. We feel troubled in our conscience, not because of this or that single action -- everybody has behaved rather badly sometimes in his life -- but because of a feeling of not being what we ought to be, in a more general way; we feel ashamed of the single more or less bad actions we know; we repent them perhaps. They are surely painful to remember, but this pain is, so to say, localized and circumscribed, concerned with well-defined points of our past life, definite days, definite places, involving certain persons, and so on. But this feeling of uneasiness is different; it is a general discomfiture and dissatisfaction, pervading our whole being, more troublesome than painful memories are, because of its vagueness, of its not referring to some particular fact; it is a feeling as if everything were wrong with us and as if our whole personality were in need of a thorough cleaning and rebuilding.
There is probably no one not having felt, one time or another, such things, though there are quite a few who are very clever in forgetting quickly these unpleasant experiences; at least they will not be noticed until they turn up the next time.
There are other reasons too which may make us wish for some change of our personality, even though we are not too much dissatisfied with it. A man may, indeed, conceive the idea that he would get along with his fellows much better if he were different; he may discover that many of the troubles in his married life depend on the way he takes things and on how he reacts to certain situations; he may come to think that his being not as well-liked as he would wish to be may depend on himself and not exclusively on other people. Disagreeable though this thought is, he has to face it; he has to consider the possibility of his own deficiencies and faults being at the bottom of his difficulties. The very moment this idea comes to him, he cannot but ask himself what is wrong with him and what he can do to improve things.
There is, furthermore, the fact of what is commonly called bad habit. This name covers things of a widely different nature, ranging from some oddities of behavior, which are so far rather unimportant, to real immorality. Some "bad habits" are morally more or less indifferent -- an absolute indifference in regard to morals does not exist -- but nevertheless not to be neglected, because they become a nuisance to others and, often enough, a serious handicap to the person addicted to them. Needless to mention instance: the figure of the man who is always clearing his throat, or of the other who incessantly turns a pencil between his fingers; of the woman who every second minute opens and closes her bag with a loud snap; of the girl who cannot refrain from munching candy during a concert and rustles the paper; of the person incapable of staying quiet and who steadily fidgets, and of the representatives of many equally unpleasant types sufficiently well-known.
Bad habits like these make a person appear rather repulsive. If a man has some remarkable qualities, people will put up with his disagreeable habits, though they will fel them to be as disagreeable as ever. They say of him: "He is very clever indeed, very instructed, rather interesting, quite nice, but...." And there will always be some people with whom the "but" carries more weight than the rest of the qualities, be they ever so excellent. Harmless as such a habit may appear to the one who has it -- if he is aware of it at all -- it may become a very serious obstacle to success.
Some habits one would not just call immoral, are nevertheless a definite part of personality, and they may influence the relations with other people in a marked manner. To be a bad loser in play or in sport is not necessarily a sign of moral inferiority, though it may denote such a deficiency. The general suspicion aroused by such behavior is indeed not quite unfounded, though one has to beware of hasty conclusions. The habit of fair play in sport is, on the other hand, no guarantee of thoroughgoing morality; a man may quite well be absolutely fair in sports and very unscrupulous in business. Being a bad loser, however, or unfair in play gives rise to a definitely unfavorable presumption and becomes thus the reason of a good many difficulties in social life.
There are finally habits which are simply immoral. A person may be a habitual liar; he knows that by indulging in this habit he is not only breaking the commandments of ethics but also that he gets himself in trouble. He has had this experience quite a lot of times; he knows that he is sure to be found out; he really would prefer to be sincere and honest, partly because of the immorality of the thing and partly because of the inconveniences arising therefrom. He wants to become better, but he does not know how to begin. It is very cheap advice telling him that he simply ought to speak the truth henceforth and not tell lies any more. The trouble is that he will drift into his old habit without noticing it and without wanting to do so. Before he has time to reflect, he will give a false answer. And then, he thinks, it is too late; he must stick to his words and carry on his lie as long as it will last. His lying does not do any good, either to him or to others; he does not tell lies because he hopes to profit by them; he tells them because it has become a habit with him. And he would gladly get rid of this habit; he feels that he ought to change, and he would do so, if only he knew how to tackle this habit.
Some people are given to quite unreasonable fits of anger; others instead of flaring off in anger, become cross; both habits spoil the life of these persons and become a perfect nuisance to others. Certain persons are subjected to quite unreasonable attacks of fear; they discover enemies everywhere and feel surrounded by dangers threatening themselves or their relatives. Taking offence easily, feeling neglected, misunderstood, not loved enough, and what not, is also a rather frequent feature of behavior which does anything but further happiness.
These qualities are said to spring from temperament, and temperament is believed to be an inborn feature of personality and to be, accordingly, immutable, beyond the grasp of will; people having such an "unhappy temperament" would be very glad if they could behave differently; they are, however, convinced that nothing can be done.
Pages and pages could be filled by a list of reasons why a man wants to be different. But there is a far greater problem which has to be solved in the interest of society and of the general moral standard. This problem arises from the fact that there are many people whose characer and behavior deserves a strict censure and who, nevertheless, are quite unduly satisfied with themselves and ignore altogether their having many, somtimes very grave, defects.
Human nature is subjected to many self-deceptions. But if we want to know whether we are on the right way, we have first of all to get a true idea of what we are. We may be wrong in being satisfied with our personality, but we may be equally wrong in holding the opposite opinion. The desire for change, for developing another character, assuming another behavior is not always the outcome of a sincere wish for moral improvement, not even always of a longing for greater efficiency; it not so seldom springs simply from vanity.
Knowledge of one's own self is said to be the first step on the way to improvement; we have to know who and what we are first, before finding out whether and in what sense we ought to improve. The most important thing, therefore, is to get a precise idea of one's own self.
2. Can We Change?
Though all the following chapters will demonstrate that we can change, and how far personality and character may change and that this change can be brought about by our own doing, it seems nevertheless advisable to make some few preliminary remarks on this subject. They appear to be indicated because there is a rather general conviction that character and personality are essentially immutable. The knowledge of being in need of change becomes neutralized and rendered ineffective by such a conviction. The prejudice of the immutability of personality may become a strong objection against all that will be detailed in this book. This prejudice cannot, it is true, be upheld any more after all the facts upon which the arguments of these pages repose have become known; but a prejudice may create a certain attitude of mind making it impenetrable, more or less so, even for very convincing reasons. It is, therefore, better to say right here some words on this topic.
People will readily agree that a man may behave differently, that he may change his behavior even so far as to make others believe in a radical change of his personality; but such a change is considered, generally, as a kind of fake, as playing a role or wearing a mask. A many may learn to behave in such a way as not to shock his neighbors; he may learn to adopt the customs of his environment and to behave as the other people do; but it is doubtful, so this very common opinion runs, whether he may ever really become different, that is, whether his being can change.
Many people are agreed, on the other hand, that a thorough change of behavior is to be expected only from a change of being. A behavior a person adopts because it is useful or agreeable to his fellows and because not adopting it would give rise to many inconveniences, cannot be upheld continuously; the "true nature" of such a person is sure to leak out sooner or later. Men who are able to carry through such a role during a lifetime and who are never found out, seem to exist only in fiction but not in reality.
A man wanting to become different finds himself, as it seems, in the dilemma of having either to play a role and to risk being found out or to give up becoming a different altogether. The first does not appeal to a somehow upright mind, because it comes dangerously near to lying, even if there were not the risk of being unmasked. The second means going on suffering all the unpleasantness arising from one's present personality.
But this conviction of character being immutable is not so general as it is believed to be. Even persons who openly profess this opinion do not act according to it; if a man were indeed fully convinced of the immutability of character or personality, he never would try to influence other people and to make them different; but mankind believes, and did always believe, in education. Education means, of course, more than merely imparting knowledge and teaching a certain kind of behavior; it is also, and even mainly, formation of character. There are indeed some who declare that there is in truth no such thing as education; that man is essentially uneducable and that the only thing we can do is to train him in a certain way and teach him to refrain from actions which become disadvantageous to society and, therefore, have painful consequences for the individual. But even these people behave, when they have to educate others, as if they held quite the opposite view. Notwithstanding the professed unbelief in the power of educational influence, the general attitude proves that the opposite conviction is too deeply rooted in human nature to be destroyed by such pessimistic ideas.
Contrary to what some advocates of "progress" pretend, there is always some truth in the old and general convictions of mankind. It is highly improbable that an utterly wrong idea should have persisted throughout the innumerable centuries since man made his appearance on earth. The admirers of "progress" like to declare that all the ideas they do not approve of, even though they were believed by mankind for so many thousands of years, are mere "superstitions" and "illusions." But these people never care to explain why mankind became the prey of such astonishing superstitions. It is quite true that common opinion is not an absolutely reliable sign of truth; but it is at least a reason for inquiring whether a statement man believed and believes in may not be true. That this statement is not in accordance with some very "progressive" ideas is not at all a proof of its being not true.
The fact, then, that man always believed and still believes in character education, in reform, in improvement -- and, of course, in a change for the worse too -- may let us suspect that there is some truth in this idea. It will become clear afterwards that there are some very strong, even convincing reasons for accepting this statement. Experience shows that changes of character occur and that they may be brought about by natural influences. Among these influences man's own will and endeavor play quite a prominent part. The opposition against this idea does not arise from facts and from experience but from sources of an entirely different nature.
We need but open our eyes to become aware of the fact that changes of personality are quite common occurrences. History and biography tell us of many cases in which some person became changed so thoroughly that he appeared indeed to have become another personality. We know that a certain habit of life may become -- even if it had been adopted consciously and for a definite end at first -- a man's "second nature," and that this second nature may replace the first one totally and make it disappear altogether. There is the fact of conversion; there is the other of experience producing a thorough change of personality. The existence of these facts cannot be denied. But these cases are regarded as "exceptions"; such things exist indeed, a man will say, but they are exceptions; exceptions prove the rule, and I, for my part, cannot aspire to be an exception. This argument is, however, logically unsound and untrue from the point of view of psychology. Nobody can know whether he is such an "exception" or not before having tried to be one. The contention of not belonging to these "exceptional" cases is but a pretext for not trying to be one.
The idea of being incapable of any change is itself part of the character which is in need of change. Everyone feeling in need of change knows by instinct, as it were, that changing is a difficult and a painful task; and human nature tends to escape, as far as possible, all unpleasantness. Paradoxical though it may seem, it is just this conviction of not being able to change which ought to supply a strong reason for attempting to do so.
Why, how, and that human nature, or rather personality, can change will be shown in the subsequent chapters. They have indeed no other intention but to prove this change to be possible and to show the ways promising success. It is, therefore, not necessary to mention here more of the reasons for holding this opinion. Only one fact may be alluded to here. If human character were not susceptible of very great changes, it would be very strange indeed that so many psychologists, pedagogists and philosophers of today deal in their writings just with the problem of character education. During the last thirty years or so numerous treaties have been published on this topic. It is scarcely probably that scholars devote time and attention to an altogether fruitless endeavor and that the public is eager to hear about things of no use at all.
This conviction of the immutability of character has become more general only during the last century. This is curious, because the psychologists of the nineteenth century neglected rather the problems connnected with personality and character. One may look through the indexes of many a treatise on psychology -- and there are quite a few of them -- published getween, say, 1870 and 1900, without coming across the terms of character or of the single features of character. Psychology was in those years interested too much in the "elementary" facts of mental life, to care for the complicated phenomena of behavior, character or personality. The conviction of character being immutable is not, therefore, derived from the facts psychology collected by its experiments and its work done in the laboratories. This conviction is more the result of a general idea of human nature, an idea born of certain philosophies.
The philosophers of the nineteenth century, or at least a great part of them, were so utterly enthralled by the enormous and indeed amazing progress of science that they had come to believe science the only way of understanding reality. This unlucky overrating of science had set in already at an earlier time, but it gained a decisive influence on general mentality only during the last century, after the results of scientific research had become visible to eveyone by the progress of technique. Science, however, has to proceed by the way of analysis, by discovering the last "elements" of the complicated phenomenoa we observe and by reducing these to the most elementary and simple factors. In man the elementary factors seemed to be those of the biological order, the more as physiology hoped to understand human nature by means of physics and of chemistry. Laws of physics, however, are immutable; they cannot be influenced by human will. Human nature becomes immutable if it depends in all its manifestations on the immutable laws of inorganic matter. This trend of thought could not but give rise to the idea of human personality being immutable in the same manner as its basis was thought to be so. But this philosophy overlooked very important and even essential facts. They had to be rediscovered, as it were, and this process of rediscovery which has set in about the year 1900 is not as yet at its end. Modern science had to rediscover the human soul, human liberty, the essential differences existing between a living organism and dead matter, or between mere organic life and the life of the mind. A steadily growing number of scientists, of psychologists, of philosophers turn away from the convictions cherished by the nineteenth century. Though there are still many who will go on believing in the catchwords of those bygone times, those who have become aware that mankind has been ensnared by falsehoods and mistakes gain in influence.
It is not for these pages to describe this change of general mentality to a greater extent and to detail the reasons which have brought it about. But it had to be pointed out that the idea of human personality being essentially immutable is not the result of observation or of experience, much less even of scientific research, but the outcome of very general, and indeed philosophical, ideas. This had to be pointed out the more, because the following chapters will have to allude to general ideas and philosophical views more than once.
[More to come...]